Just before Thrice‘s largest sold-out, hometown headlining show in the band’s career history, Billboard joined frontman Dustin Kensrue and drummer Riley Breckenridge in their quaint, Neo-Moorish-style dressing room at the Shrine Auditorium to discuss their comeback album and tour combo, which delivers some of their most philosophical, vulnerable and gripping work to date.
Kensrue and Breckenridge were visibly excited to resume performing as a full-time band again on their first full U.S. tour together since 2012 and enthused by the overwhelmingly positive response to their ninth and newest studio album, To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere. Kensrue described the new set as “the best thing we’ve done” and their “most cohesive piece” in a catalog, which now includes 107 original songs. Still, the duo admitted to nerves before the show.
“I think it’s weird starting at such a big show and it’s exciting it’s sold-out. It’s a great way to start the tour,” Kensrue says.
Whatever concerns were quickly overshadowed by the more than 5,000 person crowd that turned its anticipation over the band’s return into the tangible energy of swirling mosh pits with long-time fans belting out every word. The band delivered powerful performances of five songs off their new album, highlighted by “Hurricane,” “Black Honey” and “Blood on the Sand,” as well as a live debut of 2009’s “Wood and Wire,” and resurrected live versions of “The Sky Is Falling” and “In Years To Come” to thundering rebel-roar.
Picking up right where it left off after a four-year break, Thrice didn’t need time to find its chemistry again. It seemed that the band is back with a vengeance and a significant story to tell.
Just a few weeks earlier, Billboard got that story talking with Kensrue and guitarist Teppei Teranishi over lunch at Los Angeles’ iconic Cole’s about the buzz awaiting the band’s return, the new album and drinking whisky with Bruce Springsteen. What follows is a Q&A from both interviews.
Billboard: How does the excitement for this album compare to excitement over your past work?
Kensrue: It seems kind of nutty. It’s going to sell a considerable amount more than [2011’s] Major/Minor’s first week, and that is as the market of selling records is declining, [so] to go above the last one is crazy. It feels surreal. It’s weird because you put all this effort into making this thing and you have absolutely no control over anything when stuff’s happening around it.
You can never predict how people will respond when you’re gone for a long time, but clearly fans did miss you, and excitement built over the hiatus. Did you see that over time?
Kensrue: It’s definitely anticipated cause we have a lot of very loyal fans who have been listeners for a long time. You know they’re gonna be stoked. I think what’s been surprising is just the way it seems a fair amount of new people are hearing it, who have been like, “Man, why did I not listen to this before?” So seeing that is really cool just because I know these people are gonna be excited and really stoked, but just to have it expand beyond that is great.
Breckenridge: Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media: “Why am I just now hearing about these guys?” We’ve been a band for almost two decades.
Kensrue: It seems like with how much access there is to music, people are listening to more and more different things, and the scene idea is even melting a little bit. There are certainly still pockets of it, but it’s encouraging for me to see heavy music, like Deafheaven or something like super heavy and people are like, “It’s all cool.” I’m like, “Really? It’s cool, but I wouldn’t expect a bunch of people to listen to this.” I think that bodes well. It definitely seemed like heavy music got very uncool for a while and it’s rad that people’s minds are a bit more open to it now.
Your album title from Seneca the Younger’s Letters From a Stoic seems almost ironic because I wouldn’t describe the band as stoic. Was that contrast intentional?
Kensrue: Not really, but personality wise I feel like I am very stoic. I have people that, after knowing me for a while, are like, “I thought you hated me when you first met me.” I remember meeting them and I was trying to be really like, “Hey!” I think, for me, people end up being surprised because I’m very loud and yelling on stage, or I sing loudly, but I’m very soft spoken. We’re all pretty different on scales of introvert, but, in general, we’re all very low-key and we like hanging with our good friends. We’re definitely not the party hosts. But after the show, I’ve done my thing and I’m like, “I can go out now and just talk to people until they are done.”
Is it important to you, before you begin the songwriting process, to catch up and spend time together?
Kensrue: We would hang, but the first thing we did before we started playing together, we had dinner with all our wives/girlfriends and that was great. It was super fun to reconnect. I think it was helpful too, because everyone definitely saw that — even though it was really hard in different ways for everyone when we took a break — it was super healthy long-term to have that space. Anytime you take a break from something that you love doing but maybe you’ve done too much of at a time, you come back to that art with a new appreciation and a new excitement.
Did you realize the break was beneficial as soon as you started writing together?
Kensrue: The vibe overall between the four of us in writing was better than it’s been in a long time on this record. It was a really hard spot last time when we wrote Major/Minor, we had a lot of tragedy surrounding with death of parents; it was kind of a brutal time.
Was there a definitive moment when you all wanted to start again?
Kensrue: Me and Teppei were at a Brand New show up in Seattle and I had already decided that I was gonna hit everyone up. So we were hanging out, I was telling him about it. Seeing old friends and this great show, I just started texting the brothers, too. I was like, “Hey, we’re at the show. Miss you guys. Want to see if you want to start playing music.”
This album is a little more political. When one writes politically, you tend to write personally as well, and we live in this insane time. Being parents, how much does that influence you in terms of writing?
Kensrue: It just causes you to think about the world in a different way, considering things you didn’t before on a small level, like, “Where am I living? What’s around me?” And then when you start having kids, you’re like, there are no parks and the schools are horrible there. But also on a bigger scale, what does the future look like if X happens? It grows you in empathy for other people as you worry about, “What can happen to my children?”
We’re picking up some old songs that we’ve either barely played live or never played live for this tour, just to mix it up a bit. We have a song called “The Sky Is Falling” from three records back. I started realizing these more political themes have gone on in waves in records, I think depending on outside circumstances getting intense at times. But that song is talking about, in the second verse, this idea that bombs are coming down and this father is talking about, if I could leave this place, I would have left, and I’m worried about my daughter.
I think having kids is making me think in ways like that. I’m very blessed to be where I’m at, but my country is also doing things that are affecting people somewhere else, and I don’t want to just be quiet about that. For me, that’s a big way that influences it, just expanding the way I think about the world.
Who are some of those writers who can take you into other worlds?
Kensrue: As a songwriter I really like Leonard Cohen, I think he’s very vulnerable, but I also think he has an amazing sense of imagery. So that was one of the things writing the record I was really conscious of, trying to be very visual with everything. I was striving to be more vulnerable in my songwriting.
Our producer Eric [Palmquist] was basically talking about how rock has lost all its nouns. A lot of times it’s become more amorphous and not very concrete. He’s like, “I think that’s a lot of why rock’s lost its impact and a lot of why hip-hop has been so successful, it’s really connecting concretely with things around it.” So he’s encouraging me to write a very noun-full record and I was very conscious of that, making it have imagery, making it connect. I think Leonard Cohen does that really well. I also love Tom Waits a lot.
Did it cross your mind, as you were playing new songs, that it would be difficult to put yourself out there so much? Are there songs that would be tough to play because they’re so personal?
Kensrue: Something that’s always fascinated me about authors, as I read a book, is there’s a weird vulnerability in writing these people in a story. It’s also scary to me, that vulnerability. But I was really pushing myself to write in a way that wasn’t so protected. Especially, you go back, there’s a lot more protection with the way I wrote, almost more essay-like, and I’m trying to write more story-like as I think I’ve grown as a songwriter.
And I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing, it was really great. But one of the things he talked about is this idea he writes his first draft with the door closed, physically and also just as a symbol. But it’s just like, “I’m just gonna write closing out anyone’s opinions or thoughts or what they might think of this.” So that’s what I tried to do with this record, and I feel like none of it is explicitly autobiographical, but I’m letting real emotions and feelings come into the different stories.
What have been those moments for you in the past where you got caught in the song?
Kensrue: It’s different ones at different times. “Words On Water” is one of those, sometimes it’s more kind of emotional, sometimes it’s an angry one like “Yellow Belly.” You are in that feeling at that moment.
Breckenridge: As a drummer, stuff with really subdued dynamics, where there’s the possibility for a sing along, sometimes I’ll pull out my inner monitor because what I’m hearing in my ears normally is basically just what we’re doing. So to peel one ear out and listen to the crowd, that’ll get me.
When you jump ahead to the tour, what are some of the songs you’re excited to revisit?
Teranishi: We’re pulling out a lot of weird ones. Not weird, but you start to develop a course of the songs, it’s a 20-song base. But we’ve been kind of mixing and matching these songs for a while.
Kensrue: Sometimes we feel like we’ve played a song too many times and it’s a hard thing to balance. And now, with this record, we’ve got 107 original songs we’ve released and it’s like, “What are you supposed to do with that?”
You met Springsteen, you were saying. How did you end up drinking whisky together?
Kensrue: It was the most surreal tour. I was doing a solo tour opening for The Nightwatchman, which is Tom Morello‘s solo project. So, I’m driving Tom around in a minivan around the southeast and Tom is shotgun, he’s got his manager and his merch girl in the back, we’re just cruising around. He’s a total sweetheart and a blast to hang with and he’s friends with Bruce. Bruce was recording and he came out to the show. It was right after I covered “State Trooper.” It seems really dumb, but I wanted him to be there for it. I thought it would be cool, but it’s also terrifying. I love that song, I love that record. He was hanging out afterwards and it was super cool. I went to Gettysburg with Tom Morello, who’s, I guess, a huge Gettysburg buff, and so he was basically giving me this Gettysburg tour. It was funny, I would drop him off at the Ritz and I’d go find a Motel 6.